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Getting the Documents Right

Three years ago, an engineer prepared drawings for a roof and façade project for our Queens cooperative. The previous board had hired a contractor for the job but fired the firm after only a month because of the poor quality of work. The new board (I’m treasurer) was elected shortly thereafter, but because of a legal matter and budgetary issues, the project was suspended. The board is now ready to resume the work, but we’re not sure how to proceed. Can we use the existing drawings and specifications, or do we need a new set? Do we have to get a new work permit? We’re considering using the same engineer (if he’s still available), although some board members think we should get quotes from other firms.

The drawings and specifications (construction documents) that your engineer prepared for the job must be revised to reflect the work that was done by the previous contractor and any changes in the existing conditions since that time. Even if the contractor’s repairs were minimal, the work quantities (e.g., the number of square feet of brick replacement or linear feet of steel refurbishment) probably have changed and have to be quantified once again.

Given that it’s been three years since the construction documents were prepared, there’s a good chance the scope of work has also changed. It is likely that the building’s conditions have deteriorated because of winter freeze-thaw cycles, which cause masonry to expand, contract, crack, spall, and loosen. Moreover, the contractor’s substandard work may have further contributed to the defective conditions. So, the construction documents are, in all likelihood, no longer accurate.

The most straightforward way to proceed is to continue with your original engineer and have him update the existing construction documents to reflect the changed building conditions. Assuming he also administered the aborted construction work, he will be familiar with what was (and wasn’t) done and what problems arose, which will give him a head start in revising the drawings and specifications.

Even if the board decides to hire a new engineer to administer the construction phase of the project, it’s still recommended that you retain your original engineer to revise the plans, for the reasons just stated. The first engineer will continue as the “design applicant,” while your new engineer will take on the role of construction phase engineer (technically the “Engineer Responsible for Special and Progress Inspection Items”). The first engineer would have to grant permission to use his drawings and specifications, and may request a fee for allowing this usage without his involvement. Be aware, however, that some engineers are reluctant to permit use of their documents if they themselves are not administering the construction work.

In cases where the original engineer is no longer available (moved, retired, deceased), then a new set of construction documents will have to be prepared, and the superseding engineer becomes the new design applicant for the project, meaning he assumes legal and professional responsibility for the design.

As for why a new set of construction documents is needed: no two engineering firms do everything alike. Each has different preferences for construction material choices, manufacturers, drawing and detail preparation, bidding procedures, general contract clauses, and so on. One firm typically finds using another firm’s documents awkward and inefficient.

Moreover, the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) does not approve of one firm “rubber-stamping” another firm’s design, viewing it as a lack of due diligence. The New York State Education Department’s Office of Professions, which administers licensure for engineers, also looks askance at the practice. This is not to say that the new engineer cannot or should not review the original drawings and specifications or use them as a starting reference point when preparing their own set. But the original documents cannot stand on their own as the basis for the repair work unless the original engineer remains the design applicant.

Whether your board will be using revised or new construction documents, the package will have to be sent out again to bid, ideally to four to six contractors. The board may choose to send the package to the same contractors selected for the previous round of bidding (excluding the firm that was fired from the job) or replace some or all of the old firms on the list with new ones. Your engineer, property manager, and often your legal counsel can provide you with the names of qualified firms. Don’t be shy about also checking with other building owners in your area.

If you have a new set of construction documents prepared under a new design engineer, the package will have to be filed under a new DOB work permit application. Once the application is approved and permitted, the initial application filed for the job the first time should be withdrawn because the new application will supersede it.

If the construction documents are not new but merely revised, and the design applicant has not changed, then the active work permit just has to be renewed under the new contractor’s name. A Post Approval Amendment (PAA) would have to be filed if the scope of work or construction cost of the project has changed or increased from the original approved scope or cost. Because it’s been three years since your building’s project was put on hold and it is now inactive in the DOB’s records, you would need to reinstate and renew the existing work permit.

Keep in mind that most engineering firms state in their agreements with building owners that all construction documents are to be used only for the project specified in the agreement. A roofing or exterior repair specification prepared for one building in a multi-building complex, for example, may not apply to another building in the same complex. The conditions, materials, structural and architectural design, and other elements may differ from one roof or one façade to another, even in identically constructed buildings on the same property. Any repair items that the owner decides to address outside the scope of work would have to be added to the scope or undertaken later under a new project with new construction documents.

While it’s usually less disruptive to continue with the same contractor or engineer on a project rather than choosing a new one, sometimes starting from square one is easier in the long run, especially if the construction work has not yet begun. Just be sure that the construction documents are based on a clearly defined scope of work and not referencing conditions that no longer apply.

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